Rights, Freedoms and Faith




From Rupert Brooke Brooke’s War Sonnets IV The Dead and II Safety


There are waters

There are waters blown

There are waters

Blown by changing winds


There are waters

There are waters blown

Stormy waters

Blown by changing winds to laughter

And lit by the rich skies all day.


There is safety

Shored in the dark tides of

A world at rest

War knows no power

We are secure and blest

Unshaken and free we shall stay.


And after,

Frost, with a gesture

Stays the waves that dance

And wandering loveliness.

He leaves a white, unbroken glory,

A gathered radiance,

A width,

A shining peace,

Under the tranquil night.


On his return to London from Nuremberg Winston Churchill asked Maxwell Fyfe to join the European Movement.


‘One day in 1947 Winston called me across the smoking room of the House of Commons and asked me if I would join the committee of the United Europe Movement, of which he was chairman. I had always been anxious to do something positive after the part I had played in destroying Nazi ideology, and I accepted with enthusiasm. I wanted to do something about human rights.’


At  the first meeting in The Hague, he joined  the cultural committee that was discussing Human Rights. After this

The Movement established  a judicial committee, to which Maxwell Fyfe acted as rapporteur. In this role he prepared a draft Convention on Human Rights, working closely once more with Lauterpacht.


He was nominated as a delegate to the Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg, which was established as a consultative body alongside the Council of Ministers, which met for the first time in 1949. Once there he was elected chairman of the legal committee, to which human rights was referred. Between meetings Fyfe worked with others at home and abroad to draft a convention:


‘Our draft had as its basis security for life and limb, freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom from slavery and compulsory labour, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of marriage, the sanctity of the family, equality before the law, and freedom from arbitrary deprivation of property. I was very anxious that we should get an international sanction in Europe behind the maintenance of these basic decencies of life.’


The committee championed the convention and the establishment of the court and won unanimous support in the Assembly. The Assembly harried the Council of Ministers, who were reticent to accept this bottom-up legislation, but who, after significant consultation, finally signed a convention on 4th November 1950 at the Palazzo Barbarini in Rome.


Back home Maxwell Fyfe’s activity was not favourably received. The then Lord Chancellor Lord Jowitt said of the Convention:


‘Of course I realise that for political reasons we must - in some form or other – accept this draft Convention. At the same time I feel bound to state that from the point of view of the administration of the law I regard this necessity as an unqualified misfortune. Our unhappy legal experts – (two distinguished Home Office officials) – who would have expressed their complete inability to draft a Bill (for example) to prevent the docking and nicking of horses – have had to do their best to draw up a code compared to which the Code Napolean – or indeed the 10 commandments – are comparatively insignificant.’


The idea of law outside national boundaries was one that many found hard to embrace.


However, Labour Foreign Secretary Bevan pointed out to his colleagues that there was nothing in the Convention that they did not believe, and it was Hartley Shawcross who saw the Convention through cabinet, and assured government support.


Clearly the European Convention was hatched in the shadows of the Universal Declaration, and in many ways there it stays.  It is a regional manifestation of a global movement.


However, it did have strengths. As Maxwell Fyfe wrote later ‘I was very anxious that we should get some international sanction in Europe behind the basic decencies of life.’


The Convention was a legally enforceable treaty that created an international court to police the maintenance of basic human rights. For, as Nuremberg proved and recorded these rights were fragile and vulnerable.


Of course the rights listed in the Convention were crudely hewn. It would take, and will take years of cases at the court to define and refine the interaction between human rights and the state.

Maxwell Fyfe wrote:


‘The difficulty of course is that human lawyers are not the creators but only the interpreters or codifiers of these fundamental human rights. Opinions differ widely as to their precise definitions.'


The Convention has fed more than 60 years of public debate about conflicting and emergent rights, many of which would have astonished the authors. And that is what they intended.


For Maxwell Fyfe, the Convention was a small practical step towards the realisation of the ideals he espoused in his speech in Nuremberg. As he put it:


‘I do not want to be a boring ‘proud father’, but I think that I am entitled to be glad that I have done something positive as well as negative in regard to tyranny, which so many of my generation in the twentieth century have accepted without a murmur.’


A bald statement of a person’s belief is not easy to come by. However in the 1940s and early 1950s there was a fashion to ask those in the public eye to describe their faith. Maxwell Fyfe was asked by CBS radio and his piece was introduced by Ed Murrow, who later became famous for taking on Senator McCarthy and his oppression of perceived communists in Hollywood.


If I must label what I believe, I think I could best describe it as the faith of a romantic. By romance, I don’t mean sentimentality or foolish optimism, but some idealism, an imaginative perception, a pervading sense of tradition, and a strong consciousness of the adventure of living. The tinge of idealism which has urged the romantic always to stand out against the dull huckstering things of life, helps him now to resist the more insidious forms of materialism. For the politician, these include the temptation to bow to the lower instincts of the mob, instead of risking popularity by pointing towards the heights. To compromise with lying and cruelty, rationalized as seeing the other person’s point of view—the temptation to put the bubble of being somebody before the achievement of doing something — this is the dross that the romantic can recognize, resist, and reject.


By tradition I’m in a sense of unity, not only with the past but with those who share the past. Shared achievements, shared misfortune, and above all shared sacrifice, acknowledge the virtues which I consider most important: loyalty, tolerance, and understanding. It may be said that selectivity in choosing sections of the past to suit our mood can create a misunderstanding of the present. I don’t agree. The romantic sees history as a succession of problems, each to be faced on its own merits. He’s painfully aware—and any experience of government increases his awareness—that each problem provides an arguable alternative of attempted solution or impotent circumlocution.


Tradition and a living sense of history stand at his shoulder, urging solution and action. They don’t stop his seeing each problem clearly and steadily according to its proportions, and not according to his own preconceptions.


For the faith of a romantic is poles apart from that perfectionism which says that if you adopt someone else’s panacea for life, government, or economics, all problems will disappear. He can’t see Christianity as a release from the problems of the world. His belief that the God who made the world came into the world and died to save it, accentuates rather than lessens his own responsibility. Every job must be done according to the highest standards of the job, with just that extra effort which is given only by the ability to throw his [bonnet] over the moon.


I know that my faith receives many pitying smiles from the cynic and the intellectual. If I know no other, it can help me in what I believe to be my most important task: namely, to try to secure that, in the second half of our mad century, the spiritual stature of man will approximate to his material and scientific advances.’

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For a short film about Maxwell Fyfe's route to ECHR click above.

To explore The European Convention Human Rights, click above.